This is a brief breakdown of 'Top Tips' for first-time travellers going to Cuba. We hope this will be especially useful for ANZ (Australia and New Zealand) travellers, but at the same time also be informative and useful for US, Canadian, UK and European travellers as well. So...let us know your thoughts, and enjoy!
Travel to Cuba is difficult, if only because of Australia and New Zealand's proximity to South America, as well as carriers not offering many direct flights. After a lot of research, the easiest and least expensive means by which to travel to Cuba was via the United States. We found that Sydney > LAX (layover), LAX > Mexico City (Aero Mexico), Mexico City > Havana was the fewest hours of flight time for the best value ticket price. An alternative route could also have included flying Copa Airways from LAX via Panama City, however whilst the costings were similar, the flights times were as much as 3-5hours longer in both directions.
As an ANZ traveller (and as a traveler from the majority of other European/Northern American nations), you will require a visa to enter Cuba. There are three well-documented ways to acquire a visa:
On arrival at Cuban customs and immigration you will be required to provide your completed visa, passport, evidence of return flight and comprehensive travel insurance. Should you be unable to provide any or all of these items it is likely you will not be permitted entry into the country.
Cuba has two mainstream currencies. $MN (moneda nacionale) and $CUC (cuban convertible pesos). As a tourist you will deal exclusively in $CUC, which the majority of shops, casas, coach services and restaurants/paladars (home restaurants), museums and souvenir shops will accept. The two currencies have similarities looks wise, so ensure you always receive change in $CUC and not $MN, as the moneda nacionale is worth far less at 28:1. (Note: CUC$1 is equal to US$1 at all times.)
As Cuba is a 'developing' nation (for want of a better term) from a technological and banking standpoint, cash still dominates. As a result, you will deal very little (if at all) with credit/debit cards and online bookings/reservations. As a result you will need to be 'cashed up' for your time in Cuba.
Most tourists enter the country via plane into Havana International Airport. Once you have cleared customs and collected your baggage you will leave the terminal toward the taxi rank, where you will see two 'cambio' or foreign currency exchange offices. These are well signposted and have large lines so are hard to miss. Be patient. Queueing is part of life in Cuba.
Accepted currencies at foreign currency exchanges are few. Converting $US to $CUC is not advisable as you will be charged a 10% conversion penalty (true at the time of writing, but check again as embargo conditions between the US and Cuba are constantly changing). The most advisable currencies to convert from if you are an ANZ traveller are € (Euros) or £ (Pound Sterling). The $ (Canadian Dollar) and ¥ (Japanese Yen) will also suffice but fewer cambios will accept these beyond the airport.
As an ANZ traveller in Cuba, there is a high risk that your bank card/credit card will not work due to affiliations with major US banking systems (please check with your bank or card issuer to confirm):
ATM's around Havana and the rest of Cuba are few and far between, often out of service and will sometimes be out of currency altogether. We exclusively withdrew $CUC cash using a Commonwealth Bank Debit MasterCard which worked perfectly.
Cards we trialed that did not work:
Banks and Currency Exchange Branches are very busy, often with long queues, and are infrequently open (definitely not at the times stated by the 'horarios' or opening hours). An effective way to check if your card will work in Cuba is to attempt to use it to pay for one of the few online services that you are able to book in advance. The most common is booking tickets on the Viazul Coach website (see here). If the card and payment is accepted then it is highly likely that the card will work at an ATM or cambio/currency exchange.
You'll most likely want to travel into Havana City from the Airport via taxi (if you have not hired a car). This trip should cost you between CUC$25-30 and is always agreed upon before the trip commences. If you choose not to agree upon a fare before a trip commences, you will face hefty fares at the end and it is expected that you will pay.
Car Hire is a popular means by which to get around Cuba for those who want complete freedom of movement, however note it is extremely expensive and Cuban roads and road-safety are substandard overall, and in many areas infrastructure is completely dilapidated. In our opinion, better to leave it to the professionals.
Taxis around Havana (both car and bicycle) are relatively inexpensive. It's the fastest and most comfortable way to get around the city for the foot weary traveller. If you are travelling around the Havana Vieja, Vedado and Centro areas, then you should expect to pay between CUC$2-8 to get around. Prices could vary if the distance you want to travel is further, so it's always recommended that you negotiate your fare price before the trip commences.
There are a few major forms of transport within Cuba for tourists:
Internet is scarce in Cuba. Be prepared to have limited to no internet access for the majority of your trip (true at the time of writing). This being said major improvements have been made over the past 5-years and now, all across major tourist areas in Havana, and in most plazas in smaller towns, there is slow (and somewhat unreliable) wifi, hosted by the government telecommunications office: ETECSA. Wifi access cards can be purchased from ETECSA offices or pavilions for around CUC$2-3 per hour of use. These offices are always understaffed, and queues are often long. Scalpers nearby or in the plazas/parks will often try and sell you wifi cards. This is overall not advisable, but if you're short on time, they're not out to dud you, just to turn a profit. Just ensure that the password on the rear of the card is still hidden/not tampered with at the time of purchase.
Phone reception for ANZ travellers doesn't exist at all (true at the time of writing - check with your carrier). Your phone will not work for calls, voicemail, SMS or MMS messages. If you need to make a call, a phone card can be purchased (at the ETECSA pavilions) and the many and varied types of pay phones around towns and in casas can be used to make national/international calls.
There are several instances where you'll need to display your passport beyond immigration, so it is smart to keep it on you for situations such as:
It is highly recommended that you take any pharmaceuticals (prescription, over-the-counter or off the shelf) that you may require, as it is almost impossible to find a chemist that is stocked, and in some cases, find a chemist at all. Have a ready supply of painkillers, anti-fungal and anti-septic creams, band-aids/plasters, and other general chemist and first-aid items. Also take (multiple) small bottles of hand santizer. Whilst there are bathrooms a plenty, often there will be no sinks, no running water and more often than not, any soap.
Of course it goes without saying that you aren't able to drink water from the tap anywhere in Cuba. This includes brushing your teeth. All casas, hotels, bars and restaurants will offer bottled water inexpensively (CUC$1-2) so you'll never run short. Iced drinks are generally fine, though it always pays to be careful.
Food is generally well prepared and relatively fresh. There is no need to shy away from anything cuisine in particular, and with food culture rapidly expanding all across Cuba it is advisable to give everything a go at least once! Whilst the selection of food can be limited, it is pretty tasty and extremely authentic.
Getting around can be confusing in Cuba. Especially in the age of Google Maps, going back to paper maps can be a nightmare. Downloading an offline mapping app, and leaving your wifi on will allow you to set and find your favourite POI's and (depending on your proximity to a rogue wifi signal) put your location on the map as well. CityMaps2Go by Ulmon Pro is by far one of the best offline mapping apps on the market that I've come across and comes highly recommended.
This quick guide is designed to be helpful to first-time travellers, more focusing on the best way to prepare for the financial and logistical elements of travelling around Cuba. If you are looking for a guide that deep dives into the best locations to travel to, suggested itineraries, and recommended hotels, casas and restaurants, then we can't recommend The Lonely Planet any more highly (...it got us through the whole trip well fed, and well rested!) We'd love to hear your thoughts, and any suggestions you might have as to extra categories we could add or expound upon! Although we have taken all care in preparing this article, we make no warranty about the accuracy or completeness of the content, and to the maximum extent permitted, disclaim all liability arising from its use. For up-to-date safety information regarding travel to Cuba, please consult a Government regulated travel site (such as smartraveller.gov.au or equivalent).
Authors: Oscar Partridge and Daniel Tuohy, 2nd September 2016